Category Archives: Pacific Northwest

Beyond the Kingdome: Jack Christiansen’s Impact on the Northwest Built Environment

I am thrilled to see the publication of Sculpture on a Grand Scale: Jack Christiansen’s Thin Shell ModernismNearly ten years in the making, this book project has taken me to countless locations across the state to visit projects, and to conferences across the world to share Jack Christiansen’s legacy.  But the real significance of this book resides right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Christiansen was a classic Northwest individual – loving all things connected to nature (hiking, mountaineering, boating), family, and building innovation.  The balance he attained between professional and personal lives was remarkable, and the impact he left on the built environment of Seattle was profound.  Anyone interested in the recent history of the Pacific Northwest, and the drivers of change, will find something exciting in this text.

Sculpture on a Grand Scale shows how Christiansen was intrinsically linked to several essential eras of Northwest life and the buildings he helped design still surround those of us who live here.  Christiansen designed for the post-war population boom – schools, churches and residences.  He designed for Boeing, becoming part of the constant drive for invention and improvement.  He designed for the paradigm-shifting 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.  Christiansen’s impact continued into the 1970s, playing a key role in realizing the Seattle Kingdome and ushering in a new era of Seattle sports.

B-52 Airplane Hanger for the Boeing Aircraft Company, Moses Lake, WA. Designed by Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson and Jack Christiansen. Complete with Jack Christiansen outfront, 1957.

B-52 Airplane Hanger for the Boeing Aircraft Company, Moses Lake, WA. Designed by Naramore, Bain, Brady and Johanson and Jack Christiansen. Complete with Jack Christiansen outfront, 1957. Courtesy of MKA Slide Archives.

As its image now graces the cover of the book, the Kingdome is certainly Christiansen’s most impactful work.  Most people who lived in Seattle prior to the 2000s have personal memories of the massive concrete stadium.  Some memories are of wonderful concerts, football games and the 1995 Mariners playoff run.  Those who grew up during that time recall the spacious interior filled with fans from all over the region.  Other memories are less pleasant, recalling the cold, grey exterior and the Kingdome’s imposing form over the surrounding neighborhood.  Debate over the Kingdome’s legacy still goes on in the comments section of any recent news article.

Christiansen’s life – and his work leading up to the Kingdome – offers an overlooked perspective.  The Kingdome was the culmination of many years of work in thin shell concrete – where geometry and structure were intertwined in the creation of space.  When King County needed a multi-use, cost- efficient structure, Christiansen dedicated his work to making a stadium possible and saving taxpayer dollars.  His design innovations for the Kingdome were not flashy or frivolous, they were responsible and austere.  In the high-cost, high-inflation times of the early 1970s, this was innovation that was needed.

The implosion of the Seattle Kingdome. March 26, 2000. Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

The implosion of the Seattle Kingdome. March 26, 2000. Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

The demolition of the Kingdome offers another chance for reflection on a chapter of Seattle life.  By the 2000s, the grim economic fortunes were long gone – replaced by a booming technology industry and the Kingdome had become a relic of the earlier time.  Christiansen’s idea that buildings should be designed to last 1000 years was no match for the rising economic ambitions of professional sports.

As things in Seattle continue to change, Christiansen’s work is finding new resonances.  The book not only describes his late work – like the Bainbridge Island Grandstand – but also the preservation efforts underway to ensure his extant work is celebrated as heritage, as a part of Seattle’s past.  New efforts in research are re-visiting some of Christiansen’s design methods, as an interest in material efficiency.

The accompanying exhibit in Gould Hall Gallery (open until December 6th) further brings Christiansen’s work to light.  The exhibit shows models, original design documents, and Christiansen’s writings.  With an entire room dedicated to the Kingdome, the exhibit includes early design strategies, Kingdome newsletters, a video of the Kingdome construction, memorabilia and a scale model of the structure.

U.S. Science Pavilion, Seattle, WA. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Jack Christiansen. Complete, 1962. Courtesy of MKA Slide Archives.

U.S. Science Pavilion, Seattle, WA. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Jack Christiansen. Complete, 1962. Courtesy of MKA Slide Archives.

The book is a celebration of architecture, engineering and design.  Readers may recognize the rounded roof of the Greenlake Pool, or the soaring arches of the Pacific Science Center. The work may inspire exploration into more of Christiansen’s work – like the Bridge over the north fork of the Snoqualmie River.  I hope readers will be left with a better understanding of not just Christiansen’s work, but an expanded perspective of the built environment of the Pacific Northwest.


Tyler S. Sprague is assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington and serves on the boards of the Construction History Society of America and the Western Washington chapter of Docomomo. His new book Sculpture on a Grand Scale was made possible by the generous support of the Michael J. Repass Fund for Northwest Writers.

To hear more from Tyler S. Sprague, join us at the University Bookstore on Thursday, October 10th at 6 p.m. for a special event and book signing!

Explore South Lake Union’s Public Art with Jim Rupp

Good weather and visitors inspire many to explore downtown Seattle, but after Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, and the Olympic Sculpture Park, many are at a loss about other destinations. The collection of art in Seattle’s public spaces provides many opportunities to discover hidden art treasures in the city—many tucked away in unfamiliar locations and others obvious but unnoticed by passersby. The South Lake Union (SLU) neighborhood is one of my favorite sites to tour because it has over twenty artworks readily available to see during a two-hour walk. Most of them are contemporary creations and the designs of many were influenced by the neighborhood itself.

Nautical history is a theme of two works in South Lake Union Park. An upside down, 20-foot-long sailboat hull is the principal element of Blanche, a sculpture at the park’s northern end. Artist Peter Richards created it after learning about the long history of boating and boat building on Lake Union. One of the best-known builders was Blanchard Boat Company, which built the hull you see. The exterior is clad in stainless steel, a nod to the more technological industries in today’s SLU. You can rent the same model sailboat at the nearby Center for Wooden Boats.

Near Blanche is the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) which is well worth a visit. Hanging from the ceiling down to its main floor is John Grade’s 60-foot tall, 11,000 pound sculpture constructed from wood planking from the three-masted schooner Wawona. Grade named his work after that dismantled sailing vessel. MOHAI has informative signage that tells about both the ship and the many interesting aspects of Grade’s design. It moves and you can walk into it! A must-see.

 

 

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The designs of two sculptures by Seattle’s Lead Pencil Studio arose from research about what the neighborhood looked like in the last century. Re-Stack, at Ninth Avenue and Thomas Street, has arches one would have seen on old buildings and its stacked cubes refer both to pallets in the many warehouses that once existed throughout SLU, as well as stacked boxes in today’s Amazon facilities. This sculpture is made of a stainless steel wire mesh that seems to create a ghostly image of things past. Lead Pencil Studio used the same steel mesh to create the form of a toll booth in the plaza off of Fairview Avenue North between Thomas and Harrison streets. This was inspired by photos of parking lots that were once common in the area. The sculpture, titled Troy Block, refers to the Troy Laundry building that once stood on this site, remnants of which remain on its east side.

Walk down the alley off of Republican Street between Yale and Pontius avenues and you can see one of the many other brick laundry facilities that inhabited SLU throughout the 20th century. On the other side of that alley is Laundry Strike, a vertical collection of wicker hampers cast in bronze, with “1917” woven into one side. Wicker hampers were used by laundry workers (all women) and artist Whiting Tennis used these images to commemorate the 1917 Seattle laundry strike, which resulted in those workers achieving an eight-hour workday and pay of ten dollars a week—one dollar more than minimum wage at that time!

 

 

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SLU also has a collection of art that refers to the history being made today by high tech companies. Biotech research is the subject of Labyrinth, laminated glass panels that stand outside of the Center for Disease Research at 307 Westlake Avenue North. In this piece, artist Linda Beaumont incorporated chronographic representations of the genetic sequence of a lethal parasite that is being studied within the building. Dan Corson’s Nebulous, at 400 Ninth Avenue, refers to Seattle’s role in computer innovation and the fact that both the environmental and technological climates are changing. Note that the glass discs of his two cloud-like forms (which also refer to Seattle’s cloudy weather) electronically change levels of opacity and pulsate at varying rhythms.

With the complex grey column at Mercer Street and Boren Avenue, artist Ellen Sollod achieved her goal of creating a technology-oriented work for this multifaceted neighborhood of biotech and technical research companies. It’s called Origami Tessellation 324.3.4 (Fractured). Sollod also created other small works along Mercer, including a hatch cover in the sidewalk at the corner of Fairview Avenue and Mercer Street that features a spider and its web—Sollod’s reference to the worldwide web.

As you tour these and other artworks in SLU, keep in mind that there are over 300 other artworks readily available for viewing in Seattle’s public spaces. You may love some and dislike others, but you’ll never know unless you walk about and look.

 

 

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James M. Rupp is a Seattle native, long-time lawyer, and local historian who has been collecting information about art in Seattle’s public places for over forty years. Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces is his second book on the subject and was made possible by the generous support of the Michael J. Repass Fund for Northwest Writers.

What You Need to Know About the Measles Outbreak

In light of the current measles outbreak in the United States, we asked Dr. Christopher Sanford, author of Staying Healthy Abroad, to break down the statistics on measles nationally and globally for travelers across the country. He also answers some commonly asked questions about immunity and vaccinations.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician.


Over 700 people in 22 US states have been infected with measles this year—the biggest measles outbreak in the US since 1994. Sixty-six of these people have required hospitalization. Most of those with measles had not been vaccinated for measles.

Per the WHO (World Health Organization), global measles deaths have decreased significantly in recent years, from 550,000 deaths in 2000 to 90,000 deaths in 2016 (an 84% reduction), but measles remains common in many low-income nations, particularly in Africa and Asia. An estimated 7 million people were infected with measles in 2016.

People immunized before 1989 may have only received one dose of measles vaccine. This provides partial protection, but better protection is provided by receiving a booster dose, that is, two doses of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) total.

International travelers should receive a total of two doses of MMR vaccine. If travelers are uncertain as to their vaccine status, they may request serology (a blood test) from their medical provider to look for immunity. Those born before 1957 in the US are assumed to be immune to measles, mumps, and rubella from prior natural infection; vaccination with MMR is not advised.

Almost all US and Canadian universities and colleges began to require evidence of two prior doses of MMR vaccine (or proof of immunity) in about 1994.

Background

Measles is a serious viral infection that is transmitted by coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace or on a surface. Usual symptoms are fever, cough, rash, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Although most people fully recover, complications include encephalitis—swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage or death—and pneumonia.

The usual case-fatality rate in measles is 1-2/1,000 (0.1-0.2%). However, in malnourished populations, the case-fatality rate can approach one in ten.

In order to prevent sustained transmission of measles, 95% of the population needs to be immune, either from vaccination or natural infection (“herd immunity”).

In the US, in the decade 1912-1922, measles caused an average of 6,000 deaths per year. Prior to 1963, when measles vaccination became available, measles caused 4,800 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of encephalitis, and 400-500 deaths each year in the US.

Washington State

In the current measles outbreak in Washington State, there have been 71 cases in Clark County (in southwest Washington, adjacent to Portland, OR) and one case in King County. The majority of these cases were in unimmunized people.

United States

There are currently measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

There were 372 cases of measles in the US in 2018. Between January 1 and April 26 of this year, 704 cases have occurred.

Most US cases are in children. Per a April 9 article in the Wall Street Journal:

New York City officials declared a public-health emergency as authorities elsewhere in the state announced new measures to halt the spread of measles, stepping up their responses after a recent surge in cases. The city on Tuesday ordered mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and fines for noncompliance in certain ZIP Codes in Brooklyn.

The current US vaccine schedule for measles: two doses; first at 12-15 months, second at 4-6 years. Boosters after initial series of two are not advised.

Global Picture

The dramatic decline in global measles is primarily due to increased vaccine coverage in low-income nations. However, should vaccine efforts wane, measles cases and deaths would inevitably markedly increase.

Many countries in Europe have seen a large uptick in measles cases in recent years. There are currently outbreaks in Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, and other European countries. Countries outside of Europe with current outbreaks include Israel, Ukraine, and Australia.


What’s the difference between elimination and eradication?

Eradication is the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases of a disease through deliberate efforts. Smallpox has been eradicated from the planet. Elimination is the reduction to zero, or a very low defined target rate, new cases of a disease in a specified geographical areas. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the US in 2000.

How effective is measles vaccine?

Very. The two-dose series provides 97% protection.

What is herd immunity?

If a certain threshold level of a community is immune to a disease, either through infection or immunization, that infection cannot be propagated within that community. The threshold for different infections varies. For example, the level of resistance for polio in a community necessary to prevent an epidemic is 80%. Measles is more infectious; about 95% of a community needs to be resistant to measles to prevent epidemics.

What is the current measles vaccine rate in the US?

Fairly high. Currently, per the CDC, 94.3% of kindergartners were current for measles vaccine in the 2017-18 school year. However, this rate is markedly lower in some communities, e.g., the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and Clark County, WA, in which measles epidemics are currently occurring.

How can I tell if I’m immune to measles?

If you’ve received the two-dose series of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, it is reasonable to assume that you’re immune. If your vaccine history is uncertain, options include a blood test to check immunity, or receiving the two-dose series.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Q&A with Poet David Biespiel

For National Poetry Month, we are pleased to share a conversation with poet David Biespiel, author of Republic Cafe.


It’s Monday, 10am. Would you tell us your motto for writing poems?

My motto would be, writing poems is impossible. That’s my motto. It’s impossible for me to do anything else, first of all, but to write poems. But, to write a poem? What is that? What is a poem? Every effort to write a poem is as much a soaring success as it is a terrible flub. It’s impossible to write in the direction I want to write, because as soon as I get close to that point on the horizon I’ve been aiming toward, what I’ve been trying to write appears different to me. Everything I’ve been doing, therefore, is wrong. A failure. In a catalogue essay from the 1960s of a MOMA exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work, there’s this opening paragraph in Peter Selz’s introduction:

‘To render what the eye sees is impossible,’ Giacometti repeated one evening while we were seated at dinner at the inn at Stampa. He explained that he could really not see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details—but that each member of the family sitting across the room was clearly visible, though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of art, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

That about covers it—for writing. It’s impossible. And, that’s exactly what makes it so freeing, so enticing.

What led you to become a writer? And, specifically a poet?

I recently published a book on this subject, The Education of a Young Poet. I think I became a writer because I liked messing around with words, with sentences. I liked the feel of moving a verb from the front of a sentence to the end. I liked feeling curious about whether I should end a sentence on a noun, or start with a noun. I liked seeing the figure of ideas and images form, from one word to the next, one phrase and one clause to the next, one sentence and one paragraph to the next. That’s what I liked and what I still like at the most tactile/DNA level of writing. Writing a poem is all of that on steroids. Now, with a poem, too, you have lines to enhance even more new relationships between adjective and noun, for instance. It’s mind-blowing.

As for why I became a poet? Writing poems, for me—because I write poems and nonfiction—I find that poetry offers greater velocity than prose and also poetry dwells more deeply in metaphor. Speed plus associative feeling. That’s two things that draw me to write poems. Underneath all that is an interest in asking questions that, perhaps, poetry can reflect upon. Writing Republic Cafe I was interested in the importance of forgetting, as opposed to the more traditional interest in the importance of remembering. So I was writing the poem—the long poem that’s the centerpiece of the book—to reflect upon that question. And yet, that’s the paradox. The close I got to dramatizing what I was forgotten, I began to see it, or remember  it, differently. So the book is trying to figure out what to make of that enigma.

Did you write the book in Portland?

Mostly, yes. In late 2012, during the production period for Charming Gardeners, which UW Press published in 2014, I began taking notes and studying the patterns of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour in Portland. Then, in the fall of 2014, I went to West Texas and wrote for a month without interruption. That’s where I drafted the book. I worked on it for several years after that, and then, in late 2017, I put the book through a big revision after Linda Bierds read it. I did that revision in my house here in Portland over several weeks.

Many writers begin their career with teachers and models. Republic Cafe is your sixth book of poems since 1996. Did you have a model when you first started to write? Do you now?

When I first started to write, I was mostly alone. Not alone in the world—well, not entirely alone in the world, I mean—but alone with my books, with paper and pen. No teachers. I had no guidance. Later I studied with several wonderful poets. At the University of Maryland I studied with Stanley Plumly, Michael Collier, and Phillis Levin. At Stanford, when I was a Stegner fellow, I studied with W.S. Di Piero and Ken Fields. Because Stan Plumly introduced my first book, I suppose I’m most identified with him, and I’m extremely grateful to have studied with him. Truth be told I still learn things from him. From him personally—we’ve remained close for thirty years. And especially through his poems, which are remarkable for their warmth and tenderness. Before those teachers came along, and ever since, I would say Walt Whitman has been a model for me. I don’t mean the man so much—not to dismiss the man, that is, but I mean the writing. His engagement as a poet with language and life. The nexus of self and society that is the hallmark of his poetry. I’ve learned from Whitman that while images never become out-of-fashion or obsolete, blow-hardedness does. Commentaries do. Explaining or psychoanalyzing kills invention. Kills metaphor. Kills freshness. What’s so great about Whitman is he still feels contemporary. It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year, and he still feels in touch with our own time. Whitman doesn’t try to explain his motivations. Instead he conveys a consciousness. That’s the thing I’ve most tried to learn from Whitman. To write a poem is to invent a consciousness. But, of course, it’s impossible.


Biespiel photo 2David Biespiel is a poet, critic, memoirist, and contributing to writer to American Poetry Review, New Republic, the New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate. He is poet-in-residence at Oregon State University, faculty member in the Rainier Writers Workshop, and president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He has received NEA and Lannan fellowships and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. He has previously published The Education of a Young Poet, Wild Civility, The Book of Men and Women, and Charming Gardeners. You can buy his most recent collection, Republic Cafe by clicking here.

What Tahlequah Said

Even writing that headline, I feel the lilt and wash of the ocean in the language of the Salish, who consider the orca, qal̕qaləx̌ič in Lushootseed, their kin.

We show our own smallness, place a frame around an individual creature, when we name an orca in human terms. But somewhere along the line, people felt that this particular orca needed a name we could relate to. Tahlequah supposedly means “mother of waters.” J 35 suggests a science experiment, not just a study of existing conditions, and we have been conditioned to expect experiments to fail.

Of all the noise we were subjected to in 2018, the most important message we received was from Tahlequah. She brought her baby to full term only to have it die within a few minutes of birth. Those of us who have experienced pregnancy know that your body prepares you during the whole gestation for the miracle of being twinned somehow, divided so that you will have two bodies to care for until the little one is fully grown. I can imagine the surging hormones experienced by this mother orca as her calf was born and failed to thrive. What could she have done? Nothing. But she understands that the conditions humans have created in the Sound make it impossible for the near-shore orcas who depend on Chinook salmon for their food to survive. She carried that dead baby with her for seventeen days, until it fell apart, so that we would see her and it, and get the message.

While it is in many ways a series of humorous books, Douglas Adams got it right when he named one of his books “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” as the farewell message from the dolphins while departing from a future earth, no longer considered tenable by its oceanic inhabitants. As the dolphins desperately try to tell us that we are doomed, that we need to leave, we ooh and ah and applaud their apparent hijinks. We are incapable of understanding that we are not the only creatures on earth with an understanding of time, life, and mortality.

While there is ample evidence around us of global warming and impending disaster, we are aggravating this scenario with our willful inaction. A couple of months ago the governor of the state of Washington, Jay Inslee, rolled out some points to enhance his standing as a protector of the environment. This included some language about saving the orcas, but not an obvious one: take down the dams that are keeping Chinook salmon from reproducing. The Snake River was once their breeding ground, but fewer and fewer salmon make it past all the obstacles we have placed in their way. The Chinook are not reproducing, and the whales are starving to death. It doesn’t take summersaults, it doesn’t take naming orcas, to figure that out.

In spite of our reluctance to face the obvious, nature has been very forgiving. The dams on the Elwha River were removed a couple of years ago, and the natural life of the river is surging back at a miraculous pace. Its native salmon have been waiting almost a hundred years to return to their spawning beds. Just imagine! They had to return from the open ocean to the mouth of the river each year, only to be turned back by dams. Again. And again and again. But now they made it.

Can we save the Chinook? In my opinion, there is only one way to find out. Take down the dams. Ease up on the hatchery fish, which probably just compete with the wild salmon for scarce resources.

Almost unremarked, another orca died on January 28, 2019, after a short illness. Kayla was thirty years old, what should have been the half-way point in her life, when she suddenly sickened and died. She lived at Sea World in Orlando, Florida, which has been the site of many questionable practices concerning orcas.

“We shared our salmon,” wrote Jack Flander of the Yakima Nation in The Seattle Times (1/29/19), speaking for the orcas, “but you took more than your share,” leaving us little to survive on. “Our waters became polluted. Our infant mortality rate increased … Imagine what a brotherhood and sisterhood we could have shared. Now imagine that I am an Indian.”

With the paperback issue of my book, The Deepest Roots, I wish I had a more cheerful introduction to offer. But the same warning bells are going off as when I started this book. What’s more, the current administration has made the work that we do to conserve the environment even more difficult, and even more important.

Every person I interviewed for The Deepest Roots has a different story to tell, a different relationship with the land and the sea. Some of them are gone now, having passed their legacies on to younger farmers and fisher people. They are remembered with fondness, their penchant for barbeque, or having created fertile soil through sheer willpower.

Others have begun to engage with the land and the people in a more entrepreneurial fashion, looking to the eastern horizon and the inevitable population growth that will take place on the island. We wonder if our children will return, and what it will be like for them in ten, twenty, one hundred years from now. Will the salmon continue to wait for us?

This book has raised as many questions as answers, but people continue to approach me thoughtfully, usually with their own stories to share. I hope The Deepest Roots encourages you to see the place where you live with new eyes, and to see yourself as an active partner in its salvation and recovery. As storyteller Vi Hilbert would say, “Haboo!”


Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a collection of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

To learn more about The Deepest Roots, buy your copy of the book today!

Welcome, ALA Midwinter!

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The University of Washington Libraries and Press are pleased to welcome participants to the American Library Association’s 2019 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. While you’re in town, we invite you to explore the city with self-guided walking tours from two recent UW Press books, Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces: From SoDo to South Lake Union and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City.

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Excerpts from these books are freely available on the University of Washington’s instance of a new publishing platform, Manifold.

Two chapters from Seattle Walks will introduce you to a fascinating collection of clocks, gargoyles, and hatch covers stretching across the heart of the city, offering a glimpse into the histories behind them.

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Hatch cover by Nathan Jackson, 1976

The chapter from Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces features extraordinary artwork in and around the Washington State Convention Center, including Games by the renowned artist Jacob Lawrence.

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Games, Jacob Lawrence, 1979

Click here for information about these pieces and many more, and enjoy your walk!

 

What Prisoners Tell Us: The Making of Concrete Mama

Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, by Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy, won the Washington State Book Award in 1981 for its stark, sympathetic portrayal of life inside the maximum-security prison. The University of Washington Press is publishing a new edition of the book, long out of print but as relevant as ever.

McCoy was recently interviewed by prison scholar Dan Berger, who wrote the book’s new introduction, in Berger’s class at the University of Washington Bothell. For University Press Week, here are some edited highlights from the interview about our neighbors behind bars.


DAN BERGER: Why did you decide to write about the prison?

JOHN MCCOY: My first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a cub newspaper reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was ending a reform experiment in which prisoners were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls and allowed outside furloughs. The theory was that the more contact that prisoners have with the outside world, the better the chances are that they can be safely returned to society. But this reform project was failing. I wondered why.

So you and Ethan Hoffman, a photographer at the paper, quit your newspaper jobs to do a book on the penitentiary?

The guard in 9-tower, his rifle ready, watches as new prisoners arrive “on the chain,” a bus that carries them shackled from the state corrections reception center in Shelton.

Yes. Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978-79 inside the prison. We were allowed to come in as early as 5:00 in the morning and stay as late as 10:00 p.m. We were unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If we walked around with a guard, we were not going to get any information from prisoners. Then, towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was interesting, because some prisoners who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a very polarized world inside prison.

How did you approach doing the book?

As journalists. Ethan and I were not prison experts. We simply wanted to photograph and report on what we saw inside the walls. Here’s what prisoners tell us. Here’s what their day-to-day life is like depending on whether they’re tough or vulnerable, men or women, black, white, or brown. Here’s what the Parole Board members say. Here’s what the warden says. Here’s the guards.

Besides the warden, did you have to talk to others to get access?

Not to get access—but politically, I had to talk to the head of the guards’ union and the prisoners who served on the Resident Council, the elected representatives of the general population.

One thing that helped pave our way with prisoners was Ethan’s decision to give anyone who asked a nice 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait photo of themselves. So Ethan had guys posing with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos. He took pictures of whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form that said we could use these pictures in the book. Ethan spent a lot of nights in the darkroom because prisoners wanted quick results. Nonetheless, the decision created a lot of goodwill and gave us great access.

Kim, right, spends time with Leomy, his “inside lady” and a member of Men Against Sexism, a club popular with prison gays and queens.

At this time, there were all kinds of areas that were off limits to guards. So, in order to enter these areas, we had to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation Group, or Men Against Sexism, or some other prison leader, either accompany or approve us. We had to tread cautiously. If we got crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have caused harm to ourselves. There were certainly some tense situations with both prisoners and guards.

Could you describe an average day in those four months you were there?

Prisoners were locked in their cells overnight. The day began with morning chow, about 7:00, for the general population—those not confined in the segregation unit or in protective custody.

Prisoners were released by tiers and walked to the chow hall—an ugly, cold brick building with a lot of cold metal tables and metal serving trays. Sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was thrown, and guards intervened.

Some prisoners spend hours playing dominoes in the black prisoners’ club room.

After chow, most prisoners had nothing to do. There were certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of the 1,400 prisoners. So they were free to go back to their cells or wander the breezeways. There was recreation time in the gym, the weight room, and the Big Yard, where prisoners played baseball, card games, and smoked weed. On occasion, the bikers were permitted to race their motorcycles around the inside perimeter. There was also a limited education program—which soon ended when the Legislature withdrew funding—in which prisoners could complete their GED or get community college credits or university credits. Occasionally, there were movies or shows in the auditorium.

Some prisoners hung out at their private club rooms. Although you could get an infraction for smoking weed, it was basically tolerated. And there was heroin and other drugs smuggled in from outside.

You could work if you could find a job in the kitchen, chow hall, laundry, license plate shop, or elsewhere. Pay was pitiful—a few cents an hour. The primary advantage of a job was access to things you could steal and then exchange or sell.

Lockup in the evening came early, right after dinner, unless you had a permit to be out for work or prison business.

Because most of the population spent most of their time in four-man, 10-by-12-foot cells, your cellmates were very important. The Resident Council ostensibly helped prisoners find compatible cellmates. But there were powerful guys in the prison who really controlled the cells. Often, you had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice mattress, and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex, cigarettes, pruno—which is prison-brewed liquor—or other things.

What did you expect to find at the prison and did you find it?

First of all, we knew it was a good and unexpected story. Look, these guys are in motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they’re racing their Harleys? We knew Ethan could get fabulous pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge—I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were transgender or cross-dressing dancers. There was sex, there was drugs. So, without making a judgment call, we had to ask: What’s happening here? And why?

“Nert,” left, and “Kickstand” are bikers, cellmates and tattoo enthusiasts.

Our hope was to do a fair, balanced, and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a notorious state penitentiary, perhaps—at a time in which hard questions continued to be asked about the purpose of prison.

How do you know you got at the truth?

Ethan had it easier, because photos don’t lie. I had to pursue multiple sources. Sometimes I heard prisoners explain their crimes and protest their innocence in ways that were preposterous. Fortunately, a helpful prison trustee was willing to share confidential records with me. And a prison attorney was quietly willing to access court records for me. I was able to verify prison stories and eventually developed a pretty good BS detector.

How did the experience of those four months in the prison affect you?

I went away humbled by the experience. I left with the strong feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for those who are there, both keepers and the kept. It’s dangerous. It does little to help people adjust to the real world. In fact, it destroys a lot of prisoners’ chances of having a successful transition.

And it picks on the poor, the less educated, and the mentally ill. Incarcerated people are disproportionally poor and minorities. They have unaddressed behavioral issues; learning issues; addiction issues. Their keepers, at Walla Walla and prisons elsewhere, tend to be disproportionally white, rural, with a high school education, often veterans, and with limited understanding of those they are charged with “correcting.”

Why is Concrete Mama relevant 40 years later?

Ed Mead, a founder of the radical George Jackson Brigade and a Marxist revolutionary serving time for armed assault on a bank, is confined to the “intensive segregation unit” commonly known as “the hole.”

For two reasons: First, prison life doesn’t change much. Prisoners spend most of their time caged. They have little to do. They band together for protection and personal gain. And they generally leave prison more alienated and damaged than when they came in. As a result, two-thirds of them return.

Secondly, starting in the early 1970s, Washington State had tried to reform its prisons by emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. That meant giving prisoners a good deal of autonomy with the expectation that if they could make something of themselves inside, they could be successful on the outside. For a variety reasons, it was a failure. Ethan and I were there as the experiment finally fell apart. But you have to ask, what have we done since?


John A. McCoy is the author of A Still and Quiet Conscience, a biography of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. He was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and has taught writing courses at the University of Washington-Tacoma and Seattle University.

Dan Berger is associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, and an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical prison studies. He is the author of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, and coauthor most recently of Rethinking the American Prison Movement.

To learn more about Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla or to buy your copy of the book, click here.